Wednesday, August 4, 2010

What is an Intelligent Cause?

I was invited to make a guest post on the forum Telic Thoughts. Here is what I wrote (under the name "aiguy"):

What is an Intelligent Cause?

Intelligent Design Theory claims that certain features of the world (like the existence of life) are best explained by an intelligent cause. I'm open to all sorts of ideas regarding the origin of life, the universe and everything, and I'm also of the opinion that our current scientific understanding of how life may have originated – and even how speciation occurs – is probably incomplete in fundamental ways. Still, I think ID theory is very confused, because it relies on a number of implicit and unfounded assumptions about intelligent causes.

ID does not describe the cause of life at all except to say it was "intelligent"; that is the full extent of ID's explanation for how life came to exist. Now, this concept of intelligence – what the word means and how it can be measured – is highly controversial among those who study human psychology, and even more controversial when applied to animals in general. But in ID, the concept has to be applicable even more generally – completely in the abstract! – because ID does not specify what sort of intelligent thing (life form? spirit? force? god?) might have been responsible. It is quite reasonable, therefore, to ask what particular meaning for this term is being used in the context of ID.

Surprisingly, some people suggest that what the word "intelligent" means in ID theory is "capable of creating complex form and function (CSI)". Hopefully it is clear that this won't do, since in that case ID theory is simply saying that the CSI we observe is best explained by a cause which is capable of creating the CSI we observe – hardly a helpful theory. In order to actually provide some meaningful explanation as to how the CSI in living systems arose, ID must mean something more by "intelligent" than simply "capable of producing CSI". The question, then, is what else this word "intelligent" is supposed to convey in ID theory. Just what mental abilities is the intelligent cause of life supposed to have?

Humans, of course, have all sorts of abilities. We can generate and understand grammatical language, recognize objects by processing sense data, solve problems in symbolic math and logic, compose and understand music, make and use tools, infer what other people are thinking, design machines, learn new skills by practicing, make moral and other philosophical arguments… and so on. Well, most of us can; some people have some of these abilities but not others. Some people are just bad at certain sorts of tasks (my wife can't seem to navigate from a map), and some people have deficits due to injury, disease, or genetic conditions that leave them without some of these abilities. Some people have deficits that are very specific: There are people who can visually recognize everything except faces, or who can use language apart from proper nouns, or who lack the ability to distinguish a melody from a series of random notes. Other people, often called savants, are just the opposite, displaying few abilities except a single one at which they excel.

Other species of animals, and computer systems, are like savants too. An animal might display highly developed abilities for kinesthetic and spatial reasoning, visual recognition, and even musical understanding, without sharing other mental abilities with humans. Likewise computer systems may be very good at mathematics, logic, planning, or design, but be otherwise incapable of accomplishing mental tasks that normal humans do.

So, rather than having a single faculty that uniformally enables all our mental abilities, people appear to have a set of specific capabilities that operate – to some extent, at least – independently, and which can be present in different degrees or absent altogether in any given person. Now, it's true that people who are good at some of these things are often good at the rest of them, or at least some of the rest of them. This covariance of mental abilities is what psychologists are referring to when they speak of "general intelligence" (called g). But this covariance is only seen on average; it doesn't hold true for all people. And sometimes – in savants, other animals, and AI systems – this covariance isn't seen at all.

Intelligence, then, isn't a singular abstract property at all, but rather a collection of abilities that tend to group together in human beings, and tend to appear more singly in some other sorts of entities. Another aspect of human mentality that we might (or might not) associate with intelligence is consciousness. There are a few very tentative theories that attempt to address the mysteries of conscious experience, including what consciousness is, what it does (or doesn't do), why it seems to rely on particular neurological functions, and how we experience consciousness as an unfragmented whole. There is no shortage of different opinions regarding each of these issues and many more, and these questions have been debated for thousands of years without resolution.

Nobody can offer any explanation of how – or if – consciousness arises from brain function, nor can anyone show that anything besides brain function is involved. We know that much of the planning, reasoning, and sensemaking that we routinely perform is accomplished without conscious awareness, and we know that our consciousness normally depends on the functioning of various neurological correlates, but the nature of our subjective awareness seems to be something quite divorced from physical cause and effect. Philosophers and theologians continue to advance their disparate ideas on the subject, but at the moment there is very little understanding that we can point to when it comes to the phenomenology of mind.

So, how does all of this relate to ID theory? Again, the question at hand is what ID theory means when it says that the CSI found in biological systems was caused by something intelligent. Can ID support the claim that the cause of life was conscious? I think it's clear the answer is "no": Since we have no theoretical understanding of what consciousness is, what it does, and what is required for it to exist, we can't claim to know that whatever caused life to exist experienced what we call conscious awareness.

And as for "intelligence", we see that it is actually comprised of different sorts of specific skills, each dependent upon various neurological mechanisms that can vary independently, with different sorts of animals or artificial systems (with different neurologies or physical structure and function) exhibiting different subsets of these abilities. Since ID theory says nothing at all about what sort of physical structures and functions might be present (or absent!) in the entity purported to have caused life, and because we have no opportunity to observe or interact with this hypothetic entity, we have nothing upon which to base any claims regarding the set of mental skills this entity might have possessed.

Given all this, what is it that Stephen Meyer (for example) means when he says that our experience-based knowledge supports the idea that an intelligent agent was responsible for the creation of biological information? Unless further qualification is provided, this is a tautologically empty claim, saying only that the cause of CSI in biological systems was capable of doing whatever was required to cause the CSI in biological systems. But to the extent that it refers to specific mental abilities that are seen typically – but not always – to co-occur in human beings, he is making a claim that has no experience-based support at all.

For all ID can demonstrate, if we asked the Intelligent Designer why, say, He created so many different kinds of beetles, the Designer may be unable to answer, because He may be a non-verbal sort of thing with no conscious beliefs or desires at all, acting without any idea of what He is doing or why. Even if current theories of abiogenesis and evolution were completely on the wrong track, for all we can currently infer from the evidence of CSI in biology, the cause of life may be like some theistic religions describe, or it may be something devoid of the mental functions that humans normally display.

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